The Road to Good Boundaries (Experience Life magazine)

If we’re going to talk boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving.

The late comedian George Carlin famously quipped that “anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” After all, who hasn’t felt the frustration of being stuck behind a slow mover or the outrage of almost being hit by a road hog?

Whether they’re Sunday drivers or back­seat drivers, tailgate drivers or distracted drivers, those who speed up when we’re trying to pass or those who stop when they’re trying to merge, all types of drivers share the road with us. The opportunities for all of us to get in each other’s way — and to tick each other off — are simply endless.

Yet the truth behind Carlin’s joke is that each one of us typically believes that we’re driving at the perfect speed, and, more important, if everyone else could only drive the way we do, we’d all be safely home in time for tea.

A possible explanation for this collective delusion is that we can’t bear the reality of how dependent we are on the driving skills of others to stay safe on the road. We unconsciously inflate our own semblance of control to help ourselves feel better. But no matter how we try to fool ourselves, the truth ­remains: We are all completely interdependent and inter­connected, not only on the road but in all aspects of life.

This brings us to the slippery topic we call boundaries. Boundaries help us navigate the traffic of our personal relationships. They help us draw the line between what’s mine and what’s yours. They determine where I end and where you begin, how I manage myself and my needs in the presence of you and your needs, and how we manage relationships so that all feel ­respected and safe.


The Three Types of Personal Boundaries

Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries themselves.

We learn about personal boundaries in our families of origin, so it makes sense that it was a family therapist who first drew them on paper. When Salvador Minuchin met with families, he would watch for clues about how they operated: who sat next to whom, who responded to questions, who interrupted, who took up more emotional space than others, and who would shrink to keep the peace.

Armed with his observations, Minuchin would then draw a family map depicting the three types of boundaries he saw at work: the clear boundary, the diffuse boundary, and the rigid boundary. To understand how they function, we need to get back on the road.


1. Clear Boundaries

Clear personal boundaries look a bit like lane dividers on the highway — long, thin stripes with gaps between them. The stripes help us stay in our lane, while the gaps tell us that we may change lanes if we choose. If we do switch lanes, we have a responsibility to other drivers to make sure that we don’t run into them, or force them to brake or swerve to avoid us.

Observing clear boundaries on the road means remaining in our lane, adjusting our speed to go with the flow of traffic, checking our mirrors and blind spots, and clearly signaling our intentions (that’d be our blinkers, people) before changing lanes so that nobody is taken by surprise.

When we maintain clear personal boundaries, the long stripes distinguish where we end and where others begin. The gaps allow us to relate — sharing parts of ourselves with others and receiving what others choose to share with us. There is clarity about what belongs to whom, so we can hold on to the essence of who we are — with all of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, stories, and value systems — while still allowing others to be close to us if we choose.

Clear boundaries free up cognitive and emotional energy. They also allow us to be welcoming and curious toward others, including those who may be different from us or who do things differently than we do.

During conflict, clear boundaries enable us to acknowledge the importance of the relationship, take responsibility for any harm done (whether intentional or inadvertent), and invite conversation about how to meet everyone’s needs moving forward.

Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries. For example, if we know someone can’t keep a secret, we stick to public topics. If someone loves to chat and we’re short on time, we don’t tempt them with open-ended questions. If we’re interacting with someone who tends to emote in big ways, we can be kind without trying to comfort, offering them the chance to feel their competence.


2. Diffuse Boundaries

Think of a time you were driving along, minding your own business, when the lane markers suddenly jogged sharply, disappeared, or were replaced by disparately placed cones. That’s what a diffuse boundary looks like.

We may intend to stay in our lane, but it’s hard to see where the lines are, and we can inadvertently merge into someone else’s lane or find them veering into ours. Roads without predictable lane dividers are trickier to navigate: Everyone must be on high alert and ready to adjust, which is chaotic and exhausting for all involved.

Diffuse boundaries in life:
The exchange of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and value systems — as well as physical or sexual touch — is so overwhelming that it’s hard to know what’s ours and what belongs to others.

Diffuse boundaries in life look a lot like diffuse boundaries on the road: It’s unclear who has the right of way, and at least one person must constantly anticipate and adjust to whatever the other might decide to do. Such relationships may be described as “enmeshed,” “engulfed,” “fused,” or “merged.”

If we operate with diffuse boundaries, we may struggle to maintain our own feelings and point of view in the presence of other people. Their anxiety causes us to feel anxious, or their anger makes us feel small and afraid. Meanwhile, a kind and comfortable person causes us to feel a sense of secure well-being.

We may mistake this sensitivity to others as “empathing,” but being caught in an endless cycle of reaction to other people’s thoughts and feelings is more likely the hallmark of a diffuse boundary. A healthy empath can read a person or a room without needing to respond in any way.


3. Rigid Boundaries

On the road, solid, continuous lines mean Do Not Cross. These are deployed when it’s too dangerous to switch lanes, such as in a narrow tunnel, or on two-lane roads where oncoming traffic isn’t visible. The Do Not Cross line means you need to stay in your lane, because a collision would have serious implications.

Rigid boundaries in life:
We are in close proximity to the other person, but any attempts at relationship get rebuffed.

The rigid boundary is the opposite of the diffuse boundary, and it’s the rigid boundaries in life that give the whole concept a bad name. When we exclaim, “I’m drawing a boundary!” we rarely mean “Our relationship matters to me, and I’d like to discuss how we could do it better.”

Instead, we mean something closer to “I’m cutting you off, because I’m too conflict-avoidant to ask if we could do this differently.” Such abrupt disengagements can be confusing, even traumatizing, especially if they awaken old wounds.

What’s more, the person being ostracized often has no idea the other was unhappy.

The only time a rigid boundary is called for is when repeated requests for a clear boundary have been ignored, or when the line-crossing is so egregious that it causes significant harm, such as in the case of threatened or actual physical or sexual violence. Otherwise, it’s more appropriate to begin the work of creating healthier boundaries.


The Childhood Road Trip

If no one modeled clear boundaries for us when we were children, we may have no idea that they’re even an option. As adults, we might find ourselves bouncing between the diffuse boundary, where we feel routinely overwhelmed by other people’s needs, and the rigid boundary, where we meet our own needs at any cost, including at the expense of others.

This makes sense if you think of growing up in a family with diffuse boundaries as an endless road trip. We’re strapped in the back seat between the poking of one sibling and the whining of another, hearing the fight between our parents in the front. Add to that the driver’s refusal to stop for a bathroom break, and we have absolutely no control over our well-being or our destination.

Naturally, when we get our license as a teenager, we feel entitled to crank up the music and drive wherever and however we like, without a second thought for anyone else on the road or who else might need the car.

But we don’t need to drive like our teenage self to have some control over our well-being.


A Road Map to Better Boundaries

The following strategies can make strong, clear boundaries much easier for us to find, even if no one ever showed us the way.

1. Match your words with your energy.

A little-known fact about boundaries is that they have less to do with what we say and more to do with how we say it. Ideally, our words and our energy match, creating congruence. If our boundaries are diffuse or rigid, congruence is unlikely.

This is best illustrated by the sentence “I’m fine.” How we say this can mean anything from “I’m doing well, thanks for asking” to “I’m actually not fine, and maybe we could talk about it later” or even “I’m not fine, I’m furious, and it’s all your fault!”

A mismatch between our words and energy requires others to decode our statements, which can create confusion and anxiety. It also indicates that we’re operating from a diffuse boundary.

Alternatively, if we slam out of the house and turn off our phone, we’ve just created a rigid boundary, cutting off the relationship altogether. 

If we’re not fine, and especially if we’re angry or hurt, and we would like to operate from a clear boundary, the best move is to own it and ask for some time. This could sound like, “Thanks for asking how I am. I’m not OK, but I need a bit of time alone before I can talk about it.” This congruent way of communicating honors us and the relationship.


2. Offer truth, good wishes, and no excuses.

People know when we’re lying, fudging, avoiding, or agreeing resentfully. Thanks to the energy accompanying our words, it just feels icky. So, what to do when we need space for ourselves, but we still want to protect the other’s feelings?

One useful formula is Truth, Good Wishes, and No Excuses. Start by being honest, and avoid any kind of excuse. Saying, “I can’t come because my sister will be here” not only invites negotiation (“Bring her along!”) but also creates the potential for judgment or hurt feelings about your priorities (“You could see your sister anytime”). Skipping the excuses avoids both of those detours. Conclude by offering goodwill to care for the connection.

These are some examples of clear-boundary responses that follow this formula. Notice how they create space and honor the relationship at the same time:

Declining invitations: “I won’t be making it, but I hope you have a lovely time.”

No second date: “It’s not a fit for me, but I wish you all the best.”

When a meeting runs long: “I have a hard stop at 5, but I’d love to chat another time.”

Saying no to a request for a favor: “That’s not going to work for me, but I hope you find a solution!”

Deflecting an intrusive inquiry: “I really appreciate your concern. It’s so kind of you to ask.” Full stop.


3. Take up your space, your whole space, and nothing but your space.

When we talk about people with “bad” boundaries, we usually mean those who take up too much space: talking incessantly, standing too close, emoting too dramatically, and eating more than their fair share of the pie. Someone who parks a noisy, gas-guzzling truck across two parking spots or drags an oversize roller bag onto the plane.

Yet while the “too-much-spacers” do impinge upon the rights and needs of others, they also take care of their own needs, and they’re genuinely baffled by those who don’t.

It’s important to recognize that those of us who don’t take up our space or care for our needs create just as much of a burden on a relationship as the gas-guzzlers. Whether we call our diffuse boundaries self-sacrifice, martyrdom, or codependence, our burnout and resentment also land on everyone else’s shoulders.


If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations.


For example, heroic, “selfless” acts can almost never be repaid. We might think we’re helping when we offer a kidney to a distant relative even if it will put us out of commission for weeks, or when we allow our sister’s family to stay rent-free in our home for a year while we sleep on the couch. Such grand gestures can create a chasm of indebtedness that makes it almost impossible to maintain a balanced relationship.

If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations. Then we honor the other person’s boundary by asking their permission before we help. Finally, we give them the dignity of returning the favor — or at least paying it forward.

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world,” writes author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Indeed, one of the greatest acts of love — which is also the greatest demonstration of clear boundaries — is taking up our space, caring for ourselves, and meeting our own needs, thus freeing up everyone in our lives to do the same.


Improving our boundaries

If we’re going to improve our boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a wave of thanks for letting someone into our lane, or some humor when we’re waiting on each other at the stop sign? The opportunities to extend grace and space to ourselves and our fellow travelers — whether anxious drivers or running-late drivers, professional drivers or vacation drivers — are simply endless. And the truth behind Carlin’s joke remains: There will always be those driving faster and those driving slower, yet all of us deserve to make it safely home for tea.



Sidebar: Energetic Boundaries

Our heartbeat generates an electromagnetic field that can be detected up to three feet away from our bodies on all sides, surrounding us in a sphere of energy — what could be described as an “energetic boundary.” This may be what we pick up on when we enter a room and can feel that a fight just happened, or someone is in shock, or something just isn’t right.

According to the research organization HeartMath, stressful emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety create an erratic, herky-jerky heart rhythm that is broadcast in this energetic field, putting everyone in our immediate sphere on edge.

Conversely, emotions such as compassion, appreciation, and love create a smooth, wavelike rhythm that invites everyone into a calmer, gentler state of being.

Breathwork, meditation, yoga, and the use of biofeedback devices can help us become more aware, not only of the rhythm of our heart but also of this energetic space we take up — our energetic boundary. When we learn to bring our heart into coherence, it helps us manage what enters our energetic space, as well as what we broadcast to others. (Learn more at


Copyright notice:

This article was written by Jane for the November 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.
It was nominated for a national award. receiving an honorable mention.
View the online version, with cross-references to other articles, here.

The Arizona Mug

On February 3, 2015, I bought a mug in a hotel gift shop. While I took my time choosing my favorite, the purchase was not in any way intended to be auspicious. It was simply that I was staying for a week-long training, and I needed something bigger than an espresso cup to drink my morning tea. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but that day, and all that happened on it, marked the start of a seismic shift in the trajectory of my life. When I returned home, drinking tea from the mug became a daily ritual – a devotion of sorts; each sip from the slender rim filling my heart with gratitude, the tears pricking behind my eyes as I acknowledged the care of so many guides, angels and loved ones – human and otherwise – who’d met their soul appointments to help direct my path.

As my new life unfolded, my daily devotion continued, right up until about three weeks ago when, in an act of careless inattention, I took the mug out of the dishwasher and bashed it on the granite countertop.

While it was “only” a mug, I was devastated.

In a true labor of love, my husband got to work. A master-gluer since the tender age of 8 years old when his football held an impromptu meeting with his mother’s ornaments, he specialized in cosmetic repairs that bought valuable time between breakages and their eventual discovery. Yet, while he was miraculously able to restore my mug’s appearance, sadly, it was only partially teaworthy.

A scouring of the internet for souvenir Arizona mugs confirmed what I already suspected – this was not some mass-produced Starbucks collectible that could easily be replaced. I wondered if it might have been hand-thrown, but without another to compare it with, I couldn’t be sure. I could have kicked myself for not taking better care of it.

I had all but given up hope when, having scrolled through every mug design imaginable, I found one just like it on Ebay. It’s slightly squatter with a thicker rim than mine. It feels marginally heavier in the hand. The hand-painted design shows the sun at a different angle and a little farther away from the mountain; perhaps because it was painted later in the day. But it’s a true kiln-sister of my mug, and it represents so much.

As I resume my daily devotion, I add two sips of gratitude. One for the artist who made both mugs. The second for the stranger who listed one on Ebay, for just a klutz like me.



PS: If anyone happens to recognize the work and can put me in touch with the artist, I’d love to make a connection ❤️.


Hair Repair

“No Jane, I did NOT leave the color on too long, and if you don’t like it, that’s on you not me,” Mindi snapped, stomping her Doc Martens across the tiny salon.

Despite the multiple sizzling come-backs I could have offered, I held my tongue. It’s an old trick from my couples therapy days: when someone says something outrageous, you just let it hang in the air. That way, the person who said it can hear themselves.

Not that I had a lot of options.

Mindi (not her real name) was one of only three hair stylists on the island. Of the remaining two, one was known for her one-size-fits-all men’s cuts. The other was Mindi’s mom.

I had a video presentation in a couple of days, my roots were showing, and Mindi’s previous coloring-oops was becoming increasingly obvious. And, unless I wanted to take a floatplane every time I needed my roots done in future, I needed to fix this now.

“If it’s possible to have the highlights go all the way to the roots, I would prefer that,” I replied, offering her a path to repair.

Mindi continued her stomping, banged a few cupboard doors, and turned me away from the mirror. I wondered if I’d be leaving with green hair and a half-shaved head, but I reminded myself that if the worst came to the worst, I do own a wig.

I waited while she mixed the color and cut up the foils.

“How are you settling in to your new place?” I ventured, recalling that she was in the middle of a move the last time I’d seen her.

“Fine.” She responded, flatly.

I waited a few more minutes and tried again.

“Did you say you were headed back to college this Fall?”

“Next Fall.”

I  closed my eyes and let her do her thing.

And there we sat, in semi-uncomfortable silence, while she did her work and I breathed.

After about half an hour, she finally spoke.

“My mom says your husband is the sweetest man she’s ever met.”

Bob to the rescue.

“He is.” I replied.

I told her our story. Our previous marriages. The therapists, the coaches, the energy healers who’d helped get my life back on track. The angels who’d shoved someone into my path to distract me right before I almost screwed everything up. The clients whose stories had given me hope.

I advised her on her own dating journey.

I encouraged her to start loving on herself.

We lapsed back into silence while she blow-dried my hair.

“You know, I did leave the color on for way too long last time,” she admitted.

“And I’m a Gemini-rising, so sometimes I get a bit hot.”

“Did you hear the part where I told you I loved the cut?” I asked.

“Yes.” She said. “Thank you.”

A Covid Thanksgiving

It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2020.

In previous years I’d have been delivering after-dinner speeches on “Surviving the Holidays”, quipping that Thanksgiving keeps therapists in business. I’d be adding client hours to my calendar to accommodate all those in a state of panic at the prospect of spending extensive time with extended family. I’d be teaching a lot about boundaries. Role-playing “sorry that won’t work for us” conversations. And my old stalwart: bingo cards with customizable squares for grandad’s inappropriate remarks, sister’s drama-bombs, hooded nephews consuming two-thirds of the food without so much as a grunt of conversation, vegan nieces eschewing the nut-roast in favor of turkey, and martyr mothers insisting on doing EVERYTHING by themselves before collapsing in a pool of tears because they’re exhausted and nobody helped.

Yet the reason I could have fun with it was because despite the frenzy, the travel chaos, the over-buying, the over-eating, the food-comas, the green-bean casserole (yuck!) and all of the family drama, Thanksgiving has always been a celebration of gratitude. It’s been a time of coming together as family – biological, legal or chosen – to remember who we are, where we’ve came from, and the belongingness that bonds us as we muddle through this thing called life.

Since I didn’t grow up here, I’ve always had the luxury of being a curious observer, peering through the lenses of my clients and two sets of in-laws. And I’ve found that without the nostalgia for Thanksgivings past, I’ve never had to brace myself for the disappointment of Thanksgivings present.

Paradoxically, I’m grateful for that. This year more than ever.

Because this year, as we hurtle into the Thanksgiving season, we do so – not so much with gratitude – but rather with a hollow awareness of what and whom we’ve lost. What and whom is most important. What and whom we’d unknowingly been taking for granted.

And from that space of awareness, I invite us all to notice – perhaps for the first time – exactly what and whom is precious.

And then to hold it closely, and with both hands.

The Difference Between Therapy and Coaching

As a licensed therapist who recently became a certified coach, I am frequently asked to explain the difference between therapy and coaching. Sometimes I can’t tell if the enquirer is genuinely interested or merely being polite, so I have a few nutshell responses to offer before seeing where the conversation takes us.

“Therapy is about healing; coaching is about growth.”

“Therapy is how the past impacts the present; coaching is how the present impacts the future.”

“People come to therapy because they want something fixed. They come to coaching because they want something changed.”

and then the zinger, which is a blog topic in itself,

“People are willing to pay a lot more for coaching than they are for therapy.”

Of course the reality is much more nuanced than a nutshell response can provide, and the more I try to define it, the more slippery it becomes. But what I’ve mostly found is that where you’re from, what you grew up with and what you trained in has a lot to do with how you see it. 

If you’re from England or Canada where therapy was historically the preserve of the rich, the American and those with debilitating mental illnesses (I dare you to draw a Venn diagram), there’s not so much of a distinction. Coaches and counselors stepped into the vacuum to offer therapeutic-type interventions to the general public, while therapists got wind of motivational interviewing and reframe that had typically been the purview of the coaches. Diagnosing was – and still is – only offered only by psychiatrists (the ones with medical degrees) or psychologists trained in standardized assessments. And with the exception of a few sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offered at the doctors’ office, everyone else offers some combination of private-pay interventions to get you moving in a better direction, no matter what they call themselves.

In the US, however, it’s a different story. Here, therapy is considered part of the already-convoluted healthcare system, which means that national and state boards step in to protect the public from anyone who might seek to offer services without the right credentials. The result is a tangled bureaucratic web of licensure and state-line turf-wars. Insurance companies then join the fray and argue about who, what and how many sessions they won’t cover, providing a catch-22 for therapists who are bound by state guidelines not to allow third parties to influence their treatment. The result is a mess of unnecessary diagnoses, paperwork and way too much fear-based practice, which is then seized on by lawyers who need therapy records for their divorce cases and personal injury claims. At which point you can bet your bikini that those clients who minimized their symptoms to avoid a big diagnosis are disappointed that they didn’t get the big-ass diagnosis after-all, because they’re suing someone for something bad.

If it sounds exhausting, I can assure you, it is. For several months I’ve had a recurring dream where I’m at a conference and someone invites me to participate in a great opportunity, and I go to grab my bag so I can join them. But I have so many purses and backpacks and plastic bags and – in one dream, even a hat and a cat carrier – that no matter how hard I try, I can’t consolidate them all fast enough. By the time I find a temporary solution – like throwing everything in a shopping cart – everybody’s left without me, and I can’t get the shopping cart down the stairs anyway. 

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to interpret what’s going on in my head, and you may be wondering why I still hang on to therapy licensure when it represents so much baggage for me. In truth, I do think about letting it go from time to time, but the reason I haven’t is the same reason that I stay in fancy hotels when I travel. If I’m going to go to a strange, challenging and possibly scary place, I want to know that I’m going to be safe and well taken-care of. And that’s how most of my clients feel too, especially when I’m digging into their past issues of trauma and deep-seated shame.

For all of my griping, the truth is that therapy licensure brings with it some meaningful assurances. Although some coach training programs are pretty rigorous (and CTI, the program that certified me, is one of them), a person doesn’t have to complete – or even start – a training program to call themselves a coach. A therapist licensed in any state however, has been through an accredited graduate school program, post-degree supervision, national and state exams and must complete continuing education hours to ensure they stay up-to-date. While therapists may choose not to treat certain diagnoses in their practice, they’re still very adept at spotting them, which can help a prospective client find the help they need. And, despite the shortcomings of health insurance, it does (occasionally) enable access to therapy for more people than would be able to afford it privately.

Of course state licensure isn’t entirely foolproof – there are some terrible therapists out there just as there are some truly incredible coaches. But as a general rule, it’s a bonus and a privilege to work with someone whose state is willing to vouch for their level of education and standard of care, as Minnesota is for mine.

Therapist or coach?

I’m neither, and I’m both.

Whatever you call me, it’s the relationship between us that brings the healing, the magic and the growth. 

Understanding Coaching

Is this all there is?

It’s the question we dare not ask ourselves, for fear of where it may lead. When nothing is explicitly wrong and there’s plenty to feel thankful for, we find ourselves feeling guilty for acknowledging that maybe – just maybe – life could be a little more fulfilled, a little more fun, a little more alive than it actually is.

Back when we were young, many of us learned “I want doesn’t get”. Parents would benevolently allow us an ice-cream – if we had been good enough to deserve it. Getting that new bike meant countless hours earning money doing all the jobs that parents and neighbors didn’t want to do. The upshot? Be grateful for what you’ve got, because nothing else comes easily, and you’re still gonna need permission.

Coaching is the permission to make a change in your career, your primary relationships, your location, your health. Coaching is the permission to write a book, to open a restaurant, to climb Mount Everest or to spend every day with the love of your life.

The Coactive® coaching model believes that every person is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. This means that all of us have the ability to dream big, to live out our values and to find our life’s purpose – hopefully long before we reach retirement. But sometimes we need a collaborator, a cheer-leader and a co-conspirator to help us find our uniqueness, nurture the seedlings of our ideas and bring energy, excitement and movement into our plans.

Welcome to coaching.


Recommended Resources

Gadget recommendations

Recommendations on books about couple and family relationships

Books about the brain and healing from trauma


Books to deepen our thinking and wonder and change how we live our lives

Frequently recommended Apps


EMDR therapy explained

All living bodies are predisposed towards healing. If we have a cut or a bruise or even a sprained ankle, our bodies will usually be able to repair themselves, whether or not we understand how. Sometimes, with more serious injuries, our bodies need help to start the healing process – wounds need to be cleaned; stitches, splints or plaster-casts may need to be applied; physical therapy may be necessary. Yet even with all the astounding facilitation that modern medicine provides, it is still our own bodies that do the actual healing.

It is a long held belief that psychological wounds take much longer to heal than physical wounds. Bruising sustained during an assault may disappear within a month, while the memory of that assault and associated fear may remain with a person for a lifetime. Yet treatment with EMDR suggests that this does not have to be the case. The brain too, it seems, is predisposed to heal itself as quickly as the body does – but it some cases it needs help facilitating the healing process. EMDR provides that help.

The brain’s information processing system

The brain is such a complex organ and there is much that we do not understand about it. But we do know that sleep is highly important to our wellbeing, and that there are different cycles of sleep. One of these cycles is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Research suggests that this is the brain’s means of processing, filing and storing information for later retrieval. Indeed, several studies on both humans and animals have shown that if a subject is deprived of REM sleep after learning a new skill, the skill will no longer be retained*. In short, it seems that all the information and experiences of our everyday lives are processed and integrated into our overall life story during REM sleep – whether we remember dreaming or not.

The problem of trauma

Yet some data is too disturbing or upsetting to be properly processed by REM sleep – which is often the cause of nightmares that wake us before processing is finished. Such data can include major traumas – such as a violent assault, a car accident or a hurricane – or it can include a series of smaller life events that serve to undermine our sense of wellbeing, security and peace with the world. Other data never actually makes it to the Thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for taking all of our sensory information and weaving it into an integrated, cohesive experience. Instead, the data exists in the form of unconnected, fragmented images, sounds or sensations that occurred right before the traumatic event, which become the “cues” that alert the brain to potential danger in the future. If one of these cues is triggered by something similar, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations associated with the past can come flooding back, causing us to overreact to the current situation.

In many cases, we may not associate the original event with what is happening in the present, but will find ourselves suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness or fear. We may react in ways that are inappropriate and damaging – by “losing it” with an incompetent boss, a rude child or an unsupportive partner – not  understanding why they have such an effect on us. We may find ourselves paralyzed with fear by the thought of public speaking, flying or visiting a doctor’s office. Someone in our lives might seem to bring out the worst in us, causing us to behave in ways that we dislike but can’t seem to do anything about. Any of these situations could be the result of unprocessed, improperly stored data from our past that needs reprocessing.

What EMDR does

By using eye movements that mimic REM sleep, EMDR stimulates the brain’s natural processing mechanism so that the fragments of disturbing material from the past can be accessed, processed and integrated into a cohesive experience and then into the overall life story. In the case of a recent, single incident trauma such as a mugging or a hurricane that occurred in the past couple of months, the disturbance can usually be cleared up within a few sessions of EMDR. When there are a number of traumatic incidents, or the same trauma was repeated multiple times (as in the case of physical or sexual abuse), EMDR therapists create a “target sequence plan” that lists all of the traumatic events and memories to be covered in the course of therapy. Generally, by starting with the first chronological event on the list and moving to the worst, the disturbance level of all of the memories on the plan will be brought down significantly, again enabling improvements relatively quickly.

At the end of treatment with EMDR, memories still remain, but feel distant and inconsequential. Most importantly, they are no longer associated with the emotions and bodily sensations that can be so debilitating in the present, and the cues that caused the over-reaction will be desensitized. Nightmares and flashbacks should clear up all together, and it’s not unusual for clients to report a significant decrease in physical ailments such as aches and pains, coughs, colds and allergies. Most importantly, clients typically find they have a new sense of peace with the world and with themselves which their loved ones can’t help but notice.


*Karni, A., et al. (1992), cited by Shapiro F. and Silk Forest, M. (2004). EMDR: The Breakthrough Eye Movement Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Trauma. New York, NY: Basic Books, 92.


Tapping videos

TFT seems complex at first glance, but most people choose one or two favorite routines and learn them after just a few times through. On this page, you can download instructions as a PDF file or watch a video of Jane walking you through the process.

Complex Trauma Complete algorithm

This is Jane’s favorite algorithm because it covers a multitude of emotions including sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, guilt and shame. Tapping the sequence will bring down the discomfort associated with traumatic or shaming memories, infuriating events, and disturbing images that have lodged themselves in the brain. Open PDF instructions.


Physical Pain algorithm

The physical pain algorithm is much shorter and can be used to reduce pain or other bodily sensations that are causing distraction or distress. It also works well for EMDR headaches – the discomfort in the front of the forehead that sometimes follows a session of trauma processing. Open PDF instructions.

Please Note:
The TFT information given on this website is taken from materials provided by Jill Strunk, Ed.D., LP., TFTdxVT in her training for therapists:
Rapid Resolution for Intractable Problems, 19 September, 2009. Permission has been given for the use of her materials as a resource for clients of Jane McCampbell, MA, LMFT. Permission has NOT been given for general download or distribution. Please do not reproduce or copy this material in any form. For published information on TFT, please reference Dr Roger Callahan’s book, Tapping the Healer Within (2002), available from Amazon, or contact Roger Callahan’s organization, Callahan Techniques, directly.